Smile At The Past When I See It

Photos by Todd Midler

The musician Slauson Malone made one of 2019’s most poignant records. His debut, A Quiet Farwell 2016 – 2018 unravels heartbreak and the passage of time as if delivered by an entity unmoored from both. Malone, born Jasper Marsalis, concerns himself with the kind of self-knowledge that at once disarms and endures. A constellation of emotional shrapnel that, when held to the right light, illuminates everything.

The musician Jasper Marsalis is excited to talk about Mark Leckey. He tells the story as if he still can’t believe it himself — he reached out to the British artist via email and the two eventually began a correspondence. Marsalis says he showed him his music. We’re walking through Manhattan’s Lower East Side to a venue where he’s performing later that evening. Under the name Slauson Malone, Marsalis makes quietly expansive songs that you might call experimental. Last spring, he released A Quiet Farwell 2012 – 2016, a fleet-footed record that, at just 33 minutes, somehow feels as long as the timeframe in its title. 

Leckey and Marsalis would certainly have a lot to talk about. In addition to making music, Marsalis is a visual artist, with work that’s prone to the type of open-faced introspection Leckey is known for. The two also share a complicated relationship with nostalgia. The refrain, “smile at the past when I see it,” colors A Quiet Farwell like a prayer. When I meet Marsalis a few days after his show, a word he returns to is “impossible.” At its most potent, A Quiet Farwell is disarmingly vulnerable, and the themes on the album, thorny concerns over identity, loneliness, and loss, pushed the 23-year-old to reconsider his own frame of reference.

“It was a big deal for me because it was the first time I was able to apply a lot of things I was thinking about visually into my music,” Marsalis says. “Rather than thinking about identity as a physical thing, but as something that’s impossible. That’s the center of the album and even the album cover itself.” 

Photos by Todd Midler

The London-based artist Bolade Banjo is responsible for A Quiet Farwell’s album art. A tan backdrop interrupted with nothingness. “To be black is to not exist. That’s how I see it. As a citizen, as a person, your existence is not registered,” he continued. “I think it’s empowering in some ways because it allows you to be alienated, allows you to see things in ways that people who are fully engaged in society can’t understand or see.”

Samples present on A Quiet Farwell include Otis Redding’s “A Change is Gonna Come;” Melvin Van Peeble’s 1971 blaxploitation film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; Mark Leckey’s “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore.” On the album’s denouement, “Two Thousand Eighteen, Bye:” Kanye West’s “Waves.” A sonic refiguring of identity takes shape. On each listen, you consider joining Marsalis, tumbling into the abyss, confident that something awaits in nothing.     

Marsalis was born in Los Angeles and is the son of the Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. He’s loathe to talk much about his dad (“It’s complicated”) but describes how jazz became something beyond music or aesthetic for him. “Because it’s in my family. It’s not like, ‘Oh like I’m going to go play some jazz,’” he explains. “It’s just like a part of me. I don’t know. I don’t hear it as music. I don’t know how else to explain it.” Marsalis says that as far as he knows, his dad has heard some of his songs. 

Of his childhood, Marsalis describes a diverse family. He has relatives who would more likely pass for white than black. He says it’s made him think of race differently. “Rather than seeing it as only a genetic thing — I mean it is genetic — but also cultural.” He spent most of his youth obsessing over the design of cars, a pursuit he took into adolescence. Eventually, he leaned into a more renegade approach to visual art. “I wanted to be like Basquiat,” he says. He tells me that he enrolled at New York’s Cooper Union in part because their admissions team was the most critical of his portfolio. It was actually his sister who inspired him to play music. He wanted to make EDM records, he told me. He says you can still hear the influence. “If you listen to the songs closely, it’s a lot of drops, a lot of suspense.”

Photos by Todd Midler

On “—Fred Hampton’s Door, Farewell Sassy— …Na” thunderous sub-bass lingers before it makes way for some of the most moving horn arrangements on the record. “Hopin’ that the reaper don’t get me / Bring me down like 6 feet,” Marsalis sings. “ Botch a suicide, watch the time pass by / Life ain’t been the same since acid died.” It’s a far cry from the type of EDM escapism popular in the early aughts. But one could locate the same cathartic release. 

As Slauson Malone, Marsalis was a founding member of the New York art collective Standing on the Corner, working on production for the group’s first two releases. His production style has always been cinematic and the sprawling arrangements on SOTC’s 2017’s release, Red Burns remain intact on A Quiet Farwell. Marsalis also collaborated with the rapper Medhane for their project Medslaus, releasing two EPs together. Shortly after the release of Red Burns, however, Marsalis left Standing on the Corner. (“ I was in it, now I’m not,” he told Spin). The dates in A Quiet Farwell’s title reflects a time period of tumult and change. 

“I left [Standing on the Corner] and I had been sending a lot of those instrumentals out to people and no one really liked them,” he explains. Eventually the songs on the album started to take shape, with Marsalis on vocals. “I was really intentional with what I wanted to put on it, but it was my first time using my voice. And I was afraid to give that to people,” he says. 

A recurrent theme on the record is a sense of repetition. Of running from fate. I ask Marsalis about Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which he makes several references to on the album. The track “Won’t Bleed Me” takes after a song from the film. Marsalis says the movie made a big impression on him, so much so that he wrote a paper about it. It stemmed from an interest in Blaxploitation films, generally, and ultimately touched on something deeper. “He killed the cop and he couldn’t bring down the system. He just ran,” Marsalis says.“Technically Sweetback is still running. That really hit me intensely.”

Photos by Todd Midler

Marsalis doesn’t see the same allure of running as he used to. He tells me parts of A Quiet Farwell arrived as a way of processing his thoughts on the ideas in the film. “This is related to my obsession of trains and cars and shit. The sheer force of movement. It’s just always been a fascination,” he says. “But lately, I’ve been kind of off that because I was watching videos of rockets and I was like, ‘Wow. What a waste of energy.’” 

“Now I’m about presence. Just being here,” Marsalis adds. 

Slauson Malone’s live act hopes to explore that presence. He harnesses what he calls “Sex Man.” When I see him perform, he’s changed into a vibrant button down and removed his shoes. The liberation in nothingness is freedom. Marsalis’ live set manages to blend elements of theater and performance art with rapping and a touch of DJing. “I remember the last show I did in Santa Ana. This woman who was extremely drunk in the front row. Clapped,” Marsalis explains. “She’s screaming. And she said, ‘I can’t see you. I can’t see you. I can’t see you.’ For me, if there was a thesis to the performances, that was the thesis.”

Marsalis is working on new music, too. The success of A Quiet Farwell provided something of a proof of concept. On his new records, Marsalis says, he’ll be much more vocal. He’s also looking to tap into different emotional conditions, too. “I played some songs for my mom and she said to me, ‘Why are they all so depressing?’” Marsalis tells me. “I said, “You’re right.” So I’m thinking about that.” 

“It doesn’t mean you have to change it, but just ask why. Because you can  just start saying the same stuff: ‘My friends like hurt my feelings. I broke up with this person. The world is fucked-up,’” he explains. “It’s just like, “Bro. Goddamn. How many other ways can you express that feeling?”

This story appears in issue #2 of Secret, available now.